Ahead of an announcement on the future of secure training centres next week, it is worth looking back and assessing whether they have been good for children, or not.
The idea was cooked up by Kenneth Clarke during his brief sojourn as home secretary in 1992. At the time there was a media furore about âferal youthâ and particularly boys who were committing several offences rather than anything serious. He proposed the establishment of a different sort of custody that would put education at its heart for these boys, and the very few girls. The idea meandered its way through as a policy but without any consideration to child protection or childrenâs rights which had just been enshrined in the 1989 Children Act. The Labour Party promised to oppose their establishment. The Howard League took judicial review proceedings challenging the failure to include child protection or any reference to the Children Act. The court stayed the signing of contracts and it was not until 1996 that the first was finally signed for Medway with the company now known as G4S. Nothing was built. When Labour won the 1997 election instead of abandoning the idea, Jack Straw took it up with alacrity and three more secure training centres were opened, all run by private companies.
The original idea was for a maximum of 40 children but of course they were expanded, sometimes to nearly 90.
Immediately there were problems. A riot took place in Medway. Children were removed from Oakhill and the then Chief Inspector of Prisons called for it to be closed after âstaggeringâ levels of force against children were uncovered. Two children died. A 15-year-old boy choked to death on his own vomit whilst he was being restrained by staff. A 14-year-old boy hanged himself after being restrained. Restraints and self-injury have always been rife and reoffending has been pretty much guaranteed.
The cost was exorbitant. Each child cost around ÂŁ180,000 per year, depending on how it was calculated.
Hassockfield, built on the site of the Medomsley detention centre now being investigated for systematic child sex abuse of hundreds of boys, was run by Serco and had a particularly poor record of illegally using force against children. It was closed at the end of last year.Â The centre had a âno hugsâ policy, so staff could not comfort children, but bizarrely called its painful restraint system a âstructured hugâ.
Recently the inspection of Rainsbrook revealed that children were subjected to degrading treatment and racist comments and had been cared for by staff who were under the influence of illegal drugs. The inspection report revealed that staff had smuggled in âinappropriateâ DVDs. Children were restrained 166 times in six months â 72 of these restraint incidents were in response to children harming themselves. Despite this, the Youth Justice Board announced the next day that G4S had been granted an extension for its contract at Medway.
The contracts for both Medway and Rainsbrook are now coming to an end and a process to issue new contracts has been rumbling along behind the scenes at the Ministry of Justice. Winners of the new contracts are due to be announced on Tuesday 30 June. There are two possibilities: G4S may win both contracts, despite their appalling histories. Or G4S may lose both contracts, making way for new providers to profit from the incarceration of children. But the profits will be lower â the new contracts are for significantly less money than G4S and Serco have been paid since STCs were introduced. This does not bode well.
What should happen? They should be closed. This is an opportunity to save a lot of public money and make sure that children are not subjected to abuse.
The new secretary of state for justice and lord chancellor, Michael Gove, has spent a few weeks listening and learning and emerged into the media spotlight with a speech focussing on the courts. He is right to say that it is sometimes impossible to know in which century the courts operate. The shambling inefficiency needs radical reform, not just because it is a mess but because it disrespects justice and the rule of law.
Victims, defendants, lawyers, witnesses, they are all treated as if they are just a nuisance. The buildings are filthy and dilapidated and the people running the system are curt, if not downright rude. Change has to come from good leadership and attitudes have to change at the top. Mr Gove must not just change the technology, he has to bring about a revolution in the purpose and ethos in the courts.
He could look at what happens in New York. The Red Hook community court experiment was replicated in Liverpool but was abandoned because it was claimed to be too expensive. Part of the problem was that the Liverpool court was hobbled by an antiquated and bureaucratic sentencing structure that dished out excessively long community punishments that people cannot achieve. If we ask too much of people, they will fail. The first lesson from New York is that we should exact a penance that is proportionate, immediate and brisk.
The second lesson from Red Hook is that people should be treated with respect and an expectation of redemption. The court process should be the first step to change. At the moment the court is the start of a lifelong condemnation that ends in repeated reoffending.
Mr Gove will have a fight on his hands. There are vested interests in the court system that will resist change. I wish him luck.
It is a line that is trotted out again and again and has been repeated in the latest Youth Justice Board bulletin, released this week: âThe reduction in the number of young people in custody means that the proportion of these young people who have more challenging and complex behaviour and needs is higher than was previously the caseâ. I have heard it being even more muddled, particularly from the private sector, with claims that because there are fewer children in custody they are somehow more challenging.
It is of course, nonsense.
The fact that the number of children in prisons, privately run secure training centres and local authority secure units has reduced by two thirds is to be welcomed. This does not mean that the children who are still being sent there by the courts are somehow different to the children who used to be sent there. It means there are fewer of them.
Child prisons have always been dreadful places and despite the reduced number of children, they are still dreadful. They have always been violent and neglectful. More than 1,000 men who were detained in Medomsley as children have come forward to talk about the sexual and physical abuse they suffered at the hands of staff.
At G4S run Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre inspectors found that children had been âsubject to degrading treatment, racist comments, and being cared for by the staff who were under the influence of illegal drugsâ.
At Wetherby prison, there has been a âdiscernible deterioration in safetyâ. 30 per cent of the boys were locked up during the working day with nothing to do. Some children receive as little as an hour a day unlocked from their cells. Even the boys who are lucky enough to get time out of cell are still locked up for 17 hours a day, and it is worse at weekends.
A quarter of boys in Feltham prison spend 23 hours a day locked up amounting to solitary confinement. Violence is on the increase â Feltham, for two years running, has been the most violent prison in the country.
The food budget is meagre and the food itself is poor quality. The boys donât get exercise or fresh air and despite repeated claims by ministers, the education provision is restricted.
The excuses being made for continuing this mistreatment simply do not hold water.
By repeating that this is due to the more âchallenging and complex cohortâ the message is deliberately misleading â they are trying to imply it is the fault of the children. By repeating this myth people are trying to excuse failure. It is the institutions that are failing, not the children. We have to stop blaming the children.
Perhaps a starting point could be to start referring to children as children. Language is important; it reinforces stereotypes and shapes cultures. They are not âoffendersâ, âjuvenilesâ,â traineesâ or âyoung peopleâ. They are children.
Wetherby prison has received its latest inspection report. Described as âmainly goodâ, inspectors nonetheless found a marked deterioration in safety since a report last year. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, describes âconcerning levels of violenceâ on the wings.
What I am about to say is no criticism of the Inspectorate, which performs a very important job very well. But let us just pause for a moment and think what this means.
Wetherby, which at the time of the inspection held 276 boys between the ages of 15 to 17, is not safe.
How is it that we can tolerate children being placed in such institutions? We know that if a prison is unsafe it means that in all likelihood a number of things will happen.
It means the children may well be bullied, may be subjected to violent force by staff, will be contained in concrete cubicles for most of the day, will be unable to exercise properly in the outdoors and will get little education and guidance on how to grow up into a rounded adult. I would not tolerate this for my child and I donât think any parent would think it acceptable.
It is certainly counter-productive for children who have little resilience and who donât have the educational or emotional resources to combat the tedium and fear. Yet, we do tolerate it. Prisons like Wetherby sail on unchallenged. Then, we throw up our arms in despair when those children emerge angry, bitter, violent and resentful.
Nearly a third of the boys in Wetherby were locked up doing nothing all day. Most of the others who were lucky enough to get out of their cells for a few hours still spent 17 hours a day contained in cells. At weekends, it is worse.
The inspection found that about a quarter of the boys were on some form of regime restriction. Some, who had been excluded from work and education, received as little as an hour a day unlocked from their cells.
In the six months before the inspection 212 acts of violence had been recorded, including 39 assaults on staff. There has been an increase in the severity of violence towards staff. During 2014 there had been 19 incidents where staff had received a significant injury. Inspectors saw recordings of incidents where officers had been punched and kicked repeatedly in the face and body.
Use of force by staff had increased: there had been 352 incidents of use of force in the previous six months. Pain compliance had been used on at least 19 occasions.
Inspectors spoke to boys who had been at the establishment for one or two weeks and who had not been able to contact their families during this time.
The Howard League has the only specialist legal service for children in penal custody and runs a free, confidential helpline so any child can call to get legal advice. Young people in Wetherby we have spoken to recently told our lawyers that they fear being restrained, even for minor things such as not going to their rooms quickly enough.
The shift towards locking children up in their cells without any channels to challenge it is of great concern. This is segregation by the back door. Several young people have contacted us complaining of being locked in their cells on the wing with nothing at all to do, all day and all night.Â The effective confinement of children in their cells appears to be promoted by a new unlawful policy called Red Level which the prison has refused to disclose to our lawyers.
The inspection report outlines the involvement of families in sentence planning meetings and this chimes with our experience that parents are invited to such meetings.Â However, children and their parents report feeling that they have been ignored at these meetings and contact outside of them is sporadic and often frustrating.Â We have received calls from parents concerned about their child but unable to get through to someone at the prison. Mothers are worried when their sons are unlawfully restrained, left in solitary confinement, placed on closed visits or left without their medication. One child missed five medical appointments due to lack of staff to take him through the prison to the health care unit.
This is just one prison. We have raised such serious concerns about the safety and treatment of children in Feltham that we triggered an investigation by the local safeguarding board.
The Keppel Unit, a small unit within the prison grounds for particularly vulnerable children operates as a prison within a prison and, because it is a small, intensively staffed, specialist wing it provides a safer environment for a handful of boys. Keppel is a stark contrast to the main prison and ironically shows how it is fundamentally impossible for large prisons ever to change into safe places for children.
We must stop tolerating this sort of failure. For decades generations of boys have been subjected to treatment that amounts to abuse and neglect. Enough is enough.
This is about procurement. I know itâs a bit geeky and sounds boring, but if public services get buying stuff wrong it is a waste of money and we end up being sold rubbish. Itâs topical because today Lord Carter has suggested that the NHS could save ÂŁ5billion a year partly by central purchasing. This is already what happens with prisons and they end up with rotten potatoes.
I was in a prison a few weeks ago and asked the governor what his budget was. I have always asked about the money when I visit institutions. Who controls it, how much you get to spend, where it goes. He told me he had no idea of his budget as he no longer had one.
Governors used to have budgets but could only control part of it as most of the money went on staff whose salaries and terms and conditions were, and are, agreed nationally. That small part the governor could control allowed him, or her, to buy some extra stuff locally or invest in a project or buy in special expertise. I knew a governor whose prison became a centre of excellence for deaf prisoners and he bought in specialist help, training prisoners and staff together in sign language. Others have set up cafes for the public, training long-term prisoners in hospitality and cooking and the additional income from the business went into supplementing the often meagre diet of all of the inmates.
National procurement for some commodities can save money because of economies of scale. But, it has to be managed very carefully or we get ripped off. Large contracts to supply goods to hospitals or prisons or any other institution need constant review and checking. Government does not have a great record of scrutinising such contracts.
National contracts ignore local differences. A prison holding 200 women is a different thing to a local jail holding 1,000 men. Far-flung establishments experiencing problems with quality or timeliness find it hard to get their complaints heard.Â When things go wrong, contracts are expensive to bring to an end.
Local flexibility seems to be the zeitgeist in government thinking for schools but apparently not for prisons or hospitals.
Now the sting is in the tail. It is possible that there could be savings in national purchasing of non-perishable goods for hospitals and prisons, but the real money goes on staff. The big waste in hospitals is the billions that is paid to agencies. The way to solve that problems is to pay staff properly, give them training and flexibility in shifts. That goes for both prisons and hospitals. Treat your staff well and you deliver a great service, and, miraculously, you can save money.
Every year many thousands of men and women are remanded to custody and 70 per cent will not be given a prison sentence by magistrates. I came across a case recently that illustrated how idiotic the system really is.
The man, who had been remanded to custody, asked his solicitor to get him a prison sentence so that he could qualify for the ÂŁ46 discharge grant. If he was given a community sentence he would have been released back onto the streets that day, penniless and with no benefits arranged and nowhere to live.
The man had been caught stealing a bar of chocolate from a Spar supermarket and been remanded to Liverpool prison. He had a record of 53 other offences mainly comprising theft, linked to a heavy drug habit. He had recently been jailed for 14 weeks for theft.
He told the court, via a video-link, that he had come off drugs and was no longer using methadone. He said the theft of chocolate was a result of not getting any benefits for three weeks on release from his previous prison sentence so he had no money to buy food. He said that he would be in a worse plight if he was released from remand and given a community sentence as the Benefits Agency took so long to organise money and he would not be eligible for a discharge grant and so would have no cash to buy food which he needed as he had to sleep rough.
The magistrates gave him a 28-day prison sentence.
The perverse incentive to hand out unnecessary, unwarranted and expensive prison sentences has increased in the last few weeks with the introduction of the new system of additional supervision for a year for anyone given a short prison term. It is likely that courts will now hand out short prison sentences so that people like this man can get support on release as well as the discharge grant. So, today, for the theft of a bar of chocolate he would get 28 days in prison plus a whole year of additional supervision by a private company. Whether anyone will sort out his benefits is a different question.
You might think you are living in the 1800s. You might be right.
I broadly welcome the proposals contained in the Policing and Criminal Justice Bill set out in the Queenâs Speech today.
The Howard League has been campaigning to curtail the powers of the police to impose unlimited bail on people and so we welcome the proposals from the Home Office. We are about to publish a paper written by Professor Ed Cape setting out a robust way forward, perhaps a little more radical than those in the Queenâs Speech but going in the same direction.
I particularly welcome the move to ensure that 17-year-olds in police custody are treated as children. The Howard League was part of the legal challenge taken by Just for Kids Law to change the 1989 PACE regulations so that 17-year-olds benefit from the protection of an appropriate adult whilst in police custody, and I am pleased that the law will now be tightened properly to afford full protection to all children.
It is good to see that the government is planning to address the scandal of detaining people in police cells who are experiencing a mental health crisis. Last year we asked Mental Health Trusts what provision they had for children detained by the police who needed an assessment and it was disappointing how few either knew what was available or had safe arrangements in place. Now that the law is to be changed, the trusts will have to care for children in crisis.
I support making the Police Federation being made subject to the Freedom of Information Act as it is imperative that the police are held to account for their actions. But, I want to make sure that all private contractors delivering vital justice services, such as G4S and Serco who run prisons, also be made subject to the Freedom of Information Act.Â The governmentâs approach to the Police Federation should set a precedent for expanding transparency into these commercially-run public services.
The announcement of a consultation on the Human Rights Act seems a cautious and mature measure and we look forward to contributing.
I know that so-called legal highs are causing serious problems to health inside prisons and recognise that something had to be done. However, it is disappointing to see the proposal for a maximum sentence of seven years for possession of psychoactive substances as this is unduly harsh and could be counter-productive.
Overall, the Queen and her government set out criminal justice reforms that were rational and proportionate.
There was a recent press story about young people and staff being identified as having tuberculosis in a prison. Perhaps the issue of most concern is how the disease is spreading around the prison from prisoners to staff. In the fetid and unhealthy atmosphere of a prison it is only surprising that there are so few outbreaks of communicable diseases.
Prisons are so unhealthy that people are considered to be old at 50 years of age. The poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of sunshine and daylight make for poor physical health. Many people going into prison have already lead unhealthy lives and the prison regime compounds that.
I visited a prison not long ago and saw the food allocation for myself, the result of budget cuts year after year. There was no breakfast but instead the men were given a 200ml carton of milk and a small bag of cereal in the late afternoon that was intended for breakfast, but, of course, they eat it straight away. This means that they eat nothing from later afternoon till the following midday. At lunch they were given one sliced white bread sandwich and a packet of crisps. Some were given an apple at lunch and some wings got their one piece of fruit at supper time. In the evening there was a hot meal comprising mostly carbohydrates, pasta or potato or rice. There were no fresh vegetables and only the one piece of fruit.
This is simply insufficient food so the men spend their pocket money sent in by families on sweets and tinned foods from the overpriced commercial shop in the prison.Â Such a diet for a few weeks is just about acceptable, but for more than that it causes long term health problems.
The budget for food is less than ÂŁ2 per day per prisoner. The food has to be bought from companies contracted nationally by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), so there is no local flexibility. Until NOMS took over prison budgets, governors used to be able to use their initiative to get cheap yoghurts or other products from local shops that were past their sell-by date. This is no longer permitted. Prison staff tell me that the quality of the food provided by these big companies on national contracts is very poor but they have no leverage to complain or improve it.
The cut in staff numbers means that prisoners often get no outside exercise, sometimes for weeks on end, because there simply are not the staff to supervise hundreds of men milling about in the prison yard. Lack of daylight and fresh air for long periods has a damaging effect on physical health.
All prisons have a gymnasium and most prisoners will have access to it once a week or so. This tends to be used by the younger and already fit prisoners. Those who are fearful of being bullied, who are sick or frail, or just not well enough to use gym equipment do not use it. This means that most prisoners get no exercise at all.
The health of people in prison deteriorates and the longer they stay the worse it gets. This is expensive as they then require increased medical interventions but it is also cruel.
An outbreak of TB hits the headlines, but the early deaths of people in prison and damaged health from conditions that were abolished in the Victorian slums are the real problems.
As it is possible the SNP could form a part of the next UK government or at the very least be influential in a âconfidence and supplyâ arrangement, I have reviewed what is included in its manifesto.
- Weâll continue to deliver 1,000 extra police officers, a policy that has helped deliver record low crime levels in our communities.
I have never seen research that shows that having lots of extra police officers reduces crime. It is a populist policy to announce and is regularly included in manifestos in parties across the spectrum. It is more important to say what they are going to do.
Last week the Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that crime against households and resident adults fell by 7 per cent in 2014. The numbers of recorded rapes and sexual offences increased by one-third. Crime is changing; internet fraud is becoming more prevalent and there is increasing concern about sexual and violent offences. More police walking about the streets does not address this.
- Weâve also acted to tackle the scourge of knife crime. The average prison sentence for handling an offensive weapon in Scotland is now three times higher than in 2004-05.
Evidence shows that it is the certainty of getting caught that is the deterrent, not increased severity of the punishment. Indeed, longer sentences meted out to a few is merely expensive to the taxpayer and creates a sense of injustice. It tends to be the very young and inept who are caught and punished.
- Recorded crime in Scotland is at its lowest level in 40 years, and the number of homicides has halved since 2007.
This is the case across the UK and is much to be welcomed. Although, whilst academics and professionals posit various reasons for the fall in crime, few of them think it is because of increased prison sentences or sentence lengths.
- Given the central place of human rights in Scotlandâs constitutional settlement, and their importance at the heart of our politics, we will oppose scrapping the Human Rights Act or withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.
The manifesto is more interesting for what it does not include. The Scottish government commissioned a review of the parlous state of Cornton Vale and the use of imprisonment for women and then announced plans to build a massive new prison for women, contrary to the recommendations of its own review. It suddenly reversed this decision under pressure from opposition politicians.Â At the same time, the Scottish government is seeking to end early release for prisoners â a policy which seems far from progressive and will result in a higher prison population. There is nothing in the manifesto to say what the SNP would do about the gross over use of custody for men, women and children in Scotland.
You can find a copy of the Manifesto here.
The Manifesto is not broken down into different policy sections and justice issues do not feature heavily in the Manifesto.
This is my sixth in a series of reviews of the party manifestos. Today it is Plaid Cymru.
- Decisions about policing and criminal justice need to be made in Wales so that we can set our own priorities for keeping our streets safe.
- Devolved criminal justice would allow us to provide more appropriate sentencing, including diverting young people and those with mental health problems towards alternatives to custody.
- Our justice policy will focus on prevention, using restorative justice and rehabilitation through probation rather than only offer ineffective short-term sentences.
- We will tackle mental health issues amongst prisoners in order to prevent future criminal behaviour.
In a sense policing is already devolved because police services are pretty autonomous in practice. It is likely that increased devolution will include criminal justice and policing after the election. If this means that resources and political leadership result in more children and young people diverted from crime and sanction, then it is to be welcomed. That would save Welsh taxpayers money, would reduce crime and would stop young people from having lives blighted by unnecessary involvement with the criminal justice system. It is good to see a focus on prevention and restorative justice and if Plaid Cymru can halt the use of short prison sentences it would be a huge step forward.Â As the NHS is already devolved in Wales, investing increased resources into mental health care for people on the brink of offending is something that can, and should, be done.
- We will reverse Legal Aid reforms to allow fair access to justice and will monitor its implementation.
- There is a lack of appropriate prison facilities for women prisoners in Wales and limited facilities for young offenders. We will identify suitable sites and funding to put this right.
Now this is a shocking example of identifying a serious problem and coming up with the wrong answer. The very last thing Wales needs is two new prisons, one for women and one for children. Older teenagers go to one ofÂ the biggest prisons in England or Wales that is in Bridgend and run by a private company, so there is no need for more places. Wales has one of the biggest local authority-run childrenâs secure units in the UK and that offers sufficient places for the very few children who require custody. The history of prison building shows that they get filled before they are even built, so building a prison for women would be disastrous. The Scottish government has just abandoned such a proposal. The Howard League is now working with former Swansea MP Sian James (features in the best film ever, Pride) to work with agencies to stop women coming into the criminal justice system and get them the services they need. There are 50 women’s centres across England that provide a wide range of services and we want to see that sort of network established for Welsh women.
- Plaid Cymru opposes the development of a privately built and run âsuper-prisonâ at Wrexham, which does not meet the needs of North Wales.
- We will help prisoners to develop reading and literacy skills to help them find a job away from a life of crime.
- We will look to bring the Welsh probation service back into public control to ensure the best results for our communities.
- We will introduce Welsh legal jurisdiction to codify our own laws.
- We support the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Following the large cuts to the number of magistratesâ courts in Wales, we will allow for hearings to be held in alternative locations.
We worked with Plaid Cymru, academics and other politicians to oppose the disastrous super prison at Wrexham. It meets no oneâs needs except the building companies. Literacy and education in prisons is to be welcomed, obviously. It is not going to be possible to bring the Welsh probation service back into public control, unless the Ministry of Justice manages the contracts so efficiently and tightly that the companies cannot play the system â I am not optimistic. It is likely that legal jurisdiction will indeed be devolved and support for the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights is welcome. I am less enthusiastic about holding courts in schools and pubs as this does not provide adequate support and protection to victims nor do they have IT systems and administration back-ups. I think this could be a mess.
- We will create ex-servicemenâs courts to better recognise the particular problems faced by former members of the armed forces.
This suggestion grew from an inquiry organised by the Howard League that looked at veteransâ courts. In the end we were not convinced that separate courts were viable, particularly as at least half of the veterans in prison have been convicted of serious violent and/or sex crimes. We came to the conclusion that special training for sentencers to understand the particular problems faced by veterans was a better idea.
This is a real mixed bag, with some welcome principled and evidence-based policies and then some suggestions that seem to contradict those principles.
You can find a copy of the Manifesto here.
The crime and justice section is between pages 30-31.